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5 Takeaways From The 2021 Emmy Nominations

Jul 13, 2021
Originally published on July 13, 2021 5:31 pm

This year's Emmy nominations cover a time when the coronavirus pandemic turned the TV industry upside down. So it makes sense that the shows and performances announced Tuesday might include some choices that are a bit ... unconventional.

Netflix's continuation of The Karate Kid franchise, Cobra Kai, nominated as best comedy series? Lovecraft Country, a series that was essentially canceled by HBO when it decided not to make a second season, racking up 18 nominations, including best drama series? Netflix's middling comedy Emily in Paris, widely ridiculed for snagging a Golden Globe nomination this year, also nominated for a best comedy series Emmy?

Thankfully, the nominations announced this year were mostly devoid of head-scratching choices and did an admirable job of reflecting both promising newcomers and old masters during a period when lockdowns threatened to cripple the industry. It's a heartening sign that it will take more than a pandemic to wipe out innovation and quality work in today's TV universe.

Here are five more takeaways I had from the nominations for the 73rd Emmy Awards:

Streaming services are more dominant than ever

Sure, the most nominated media platform is HBO with 130 nods. But it only got there by including the nominations for streaming corporate sibling HBO Max with its total. Even so, streaming giant Netflix had the second-largest number of nominations at 129, and upstart Disney+ landed in third place with 71.

A peek at the most-nominated shows reveals Netflix's The Crown and Disney+'s The Mandalorian tied with 24 nominations, followed quickly by Disney+'s WandaVision (23) and Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale (21). Indeed, among the top 10 most-nominated shows, just three – NBC's Saturday Night Live, along with Mare of Easttown and Lovecraft Country on HBO – were not created by streaming services.

Lots of diversity, though still often focused on Black people

It was wonderful to see Pose star Mj Rodriguez nominated as best actress in a drama, recognizing her powerhouse performance on that show with the first lead acting nomination for a transgender person. And for a critic like me, who has advocated for ethnic diversity in TV for decades, seeing nominations for ambitious, Black-centered shows such as Lovecraft Country, Amazon Prime Video's The Underground Railroad and ABC's Black-ish right next to key nods for accomplished Black performers such as Bridgerton's Regé-Jean Page and Uzo Adubo from In Treatment is like a dream come true. Best of all, the Emmys recognized Michaela Coel and her groundbreaking series, I May Destroy You, when the Golden Globes did not.

But it is time for the Emmys — and the TV industry at large — to spread that wealth beyond Black performers and Black-centered shows. Yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rosie Perez, Anthony Ramos, Bowen Yang and Phillipa Soo all got key nominations. But if Disney+'s version of Hamilton hadn't been eligible, many of those nominations would not have occurred. So I'm hopeful this is a first step toward bringing even more — and more well-rounded — diversity to big Hollywood awards nominations.

Geeks rejoice! Superhero and genre shows get more love than ever

True enough, Game of Thrones often soaked up loads of nominations back in the day. But this year, several shows in the horror/superhero space, so often overlooked by major Hollywood awards, got love in major categories, including WandaVision, The Mandalorian, Lovecraft Country and Amazon Prime Video's dark superhero satire, The Boys (which was the biggest surprise for me). We saw powerhouse studio Marvel get its first Emmy nominations this year, which likely means this is just a taste of future geekdom to come.

Saturday Night Live remains an influential powerhouse

Every few years, a snarky critic writes an epitaph for this annoyingly inconsistent-yet-often-brilliant sketch comedy landmark. And then SNL racks up the Emmy nominations to prove just how premature those rumors of death truly are. It's not just that its 21 nominations beat comedy favorite Ted Lasso by one nod; it had a significant presence in supporting and guest acting comedy categories. Kenan Thompson even managed to snag a nomination as best lead actor in a comedy for his sitcom, Kenan, while still starring as a major player on SNL — where he was also nominated for best supporting actor in a comedy.

Part of its domination this year came from reduced competition in the comedy space, for sure. (The pandemic seems to have cleared out more comedy shows than dramas.) But SNL also pulled off some brilliant shows when the entire cast and writing staff were working remotely from home, following those episodes by welcoming back a live audience well before vaccines were widely available. Not bad for a series nearly ready for its own AARP card.

Fewer notable snubs, but intense competition made some inevitable

No matter what was nominated as best limited series, there were bound to be major shows left out — just because the competition in this space has grown immensely, thanks to big-name stars signing on for projects designed to last just one season. This includes series such as Kate Winslet's Mare of Easttown.

Still, it was unfortunate that Steve McQueen's ode to Black immigrants in Britain, Small Axe, was left out of the category, along with Showtime's The Good Lord Bird, HBO Max's It's a Sin and HBO's The Undoing. Similarly, Undoing star Nicole Kidman's lack of an acting nomination had to be one of the highest-profile acting snubs, along with Ethan Hawke from The Good Lord Bird. And the Emmys also seemed to turn their back on the third season of Netflix's Master of None, passing up the opportunity to honor Naomi Ackie and Lena Waithe's portrayal of a crumbling marriage. This snub made me wonder if onetime series star Aziz Ansari's #MeToo controversy had an impact.

And much as I loved seeing the final season of Conan get nominated as best variety talk series and A Black Lady Sketch Show nominated for best variety sketch series, Emmy dropped the ball by not showing love for NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers and The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock in those categories. (Late Night got a directing nod, and Amber Ruffin was nominated for writing.) It's time to expand these categories a bit so more great work can earn its due.

Winners for the 73rd Emmy Awards will be announced during a ceremony aired and streamed Sept. 19 on CBS and Paramount+, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The last year has seen the arrival of several new streaming platforms, and today's Emmy nominations prove that we are now living in the streaming age of prestige TV. HBO Max, Disney Plus, Hulu and Netflix collectively dominated the Emmy nominations for drama, comedy and limited series. Joining us now to talk through the nominations, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Welcome back.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So who led this year's nominations?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, you're right that streaming is increasingly setting the tone for high-quality TV shows. HBO and HBO Max had the most total nominations with 130, beating Netflix by one nomination. But HBO, which is a premium cable channel, wouldn't have had that top title if they hadn't folded in the nominations from their streaming service, HBO Max. And Disney Plus was third with 71 nominations. And it kind of played out that way with series, too. You look at Netflix's "The Crown" and Disney Plus' "The Mandalorian." They got the most nominations of any series with 24 each. And then "Wandavision" on Disney Plus got 23, and Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" got 21.

I got to just point out personally I was so glad to see Jean Smart, who is a TV legend, get nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy for "Hacks" on HBO Max, which is a streaming service. And she was also nominated for best supporting actress in a limited series for "Mare Of Easttown," which is on HBO - so lots of good picks this year.

CORNISH: You've been writing on npr.org about this time during the voting process, and I notice you're focused on the limited series category. What ended up being nominated there, and why do you think that's an area to watch?

DEGGANS: Well, there was just so much competition. I mean, we're at a time where projects that might normally have been sort of mid-level movies are instead becoming these limited series with big stars like Kate Winslet's "Mare Of Easttown" on HBO, which did get nominated. But a lot of great projects couldn't get nominated because of that competition in limited series. So director Steve McQueen's wonderful "Small Axe" on Amazon Prime Video didn't get nominated. Nicole Kidman's "The Undoing" didn't get nominated, and Kidman herself also wasn't nominated as best actress in a limited series for "The Undoing." So that was a pretty big snub.

I was glad to see that HBO's searing drama about this woman who was sexually assaulted called "I May Destroy You" was nominated in that category, along with the creator and star Michaela Coel. She was criminally overlooked earlier this year by the Golden Globes, so at least Emmy was able to rectify that.

CORNISH: I want to dig into Disney a little bit more because between the "Star Wars" shows and "Wandavision" and, you know, the extensions of the Marvel Universe, they got a lot of Emmy noms. What does that signal to you?

DEGGANS: Geek power. OK, I'm a comics nerd. I'm going to admit it. And - but I was glad to see a change in this dynamic where, you know, superhero shows or horror shows get overlooked. Marvel got its first major Emmy nominations with "Wandavision." HBO's horror series "Lovecraft Country" and Amazon's superhero satire "The Boys" got major nominations. And for comic book fans like me, it's just a little bit of validation to see that the genres that we love are getting a little more respect.

CORNISH: Any surprise picks?

DEGGANS: Well, I was glad to see that "Pose" star Mj Rodriguez made history as the first openly transgender performer who was nominated in a major acting category, nominated for best lead actress in a drama. And we had a lot of great high-quality shows featuring non-white casts do well like "Lovecraft Country" and "Hamilton" on Disney Plus and "The Underground Railroad." I just hope we'll see more non-white nominees who are not Black. We need more Latinos and more Asians and more non-white people who are not Black to be nominated. But they did a good job with diversity as well this year.

CORNISH: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.